The People

Before I get too deeply involved with VN’s food and how lucky and fortunate I was to visit, I want to say how impressed I was with the Vietnamese (and the Cambodian) people.

First, there are a lot of them: Saigon, our first stop, is teeming with people. It’s a city of eight million people, and according to our guide Hue, there are four million motor scooters on the ground. And they all appear to be out at once. Susan described it as a "low tech Bladerunner."

It’s hard to describe the impact of this density. Certainly, walking and crossing the street can be difficult. But merely being in such a crush of humanity can be a little overwhelming. It’s a kind of crush you rarely see in the west—perhaps the closest would be attending a sporting event or concert when the doors first open.

The sidewalks are not wide and often in disrepair. Commerce is conducted there, as small shops, often consisting of just a chair and some tools (for repair of goods like shoes or watches or scooters or bikes), impromptu markets, and eating establishments set up for business, often supplying their own small plastic tables and chairs. There’s the normal foot traffic. Plus all those scooter have to park somewhere.

The roads are filled with scooters and the odd car, truck or bus. The buses are packed and move just as slowly as everyone else. The scooters have an advantage. Many pull onto the sidewalk or drive against the flow of traffic. While many obey stoplights, many don’t. The noise can be distracting too—the horn is probably used more than the gas pedal. To the uninitiated, crossing the street can be a harrowing experience. Public spaces like parks and markets are also crowded. Walking can be slow going. But part of the fun of exploring a new place is learning their rules, and slowing your pace (or in some European countries speeding up) to match them.

I enjoyed my interactions with the Vietnamese people, finding them friendly, polite and welcoming. They’ve certainly embraced the open economy that their government bestowed upon them a dozen years ago: after China, their economy is the fastest growing in the region, clipping along at 8% a year. Much of it is driven by tourism, the fastest growing in the region. So while the number of scooters can be overwhelming, and may ultimately have a cost of their own, it’s beneficial that many can afford them—and cell phones too, which are everywhere. They’re creating wealth, and with it, I hope, happiness.

They deserve a little of this precious commodity, coming out of their long struggles—first against French colonialism, then against Americans who so deeply feared the spread of Soviet-style communism to another SE Asian state, then against the Cambodians, then the Chinese… they must be happy to have an end to war for the first time in almost a century. I don’t know how they really live, or what they really think, but I know that I felt welcomed everywhere I went, and that there does not seem to be a shortage of food.

One missing ingredient: the obesity that plagues us wealthier countries. While there’s no shortage of food there, one kind is in short supply: the pre-packaged, processed kind. The diet is varied but based primarily on carbohydrates (in the form of rice and rice noodles) with lots of fresh vegetables and herbs with bits of fish and meat protein thrown in. A lot of it is fried. It seems to go against all the diet advice we are “fed” in the west. But I didn’t see any fat people. As of yet, there are no McDonalds or Starbucks, though we did see a few Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments—probably because the concept of fried chicken is one that is somewhat familiar to them. But why you’d want to eat western fried food, when you have such access to incredibly cheap, delicious, fresh food (and coffee, another VN passion) is beyond me.

Perhaps the polite, generous welcomes were merely a preamble to a potential sale of some kind of good or service. Didn’t matter. We know they want our money. When we declined, we were still treated cordially. It makes me think of the lukewarm or absent manners that tarnish so many transactions here in the west. I suppose the Vietnamese people have yet to reach the stage where they feel entitled to your custom, and still feel that they have to earn it. Uh-oh, I'm feeling anti-western sentiment creep in, better nip it in the bud. I am grateful for all we have here, though after visiting a developing country I feel that we may put too much emphasis on landill-destined stuff and not enough on real experiences. Experiences are what you remember in your retirement community—not the flatscreens or GPS-assisted minivans or matching dinette set in real hardwood. Travel affords me not just the opportunity to learn about a new culture, but the opportunity to compare that new knowledge to the reality I face at home. It allows me to explore the world's similarities and focus less on our differences. I don't think you get that at Disneyland.

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